Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK: Lilio Giraldi, "Modern Poets"

Lilio Gregorio Giraldi: Modern Poets. Edited and translated by John N. Grant. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 48. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674055759. xxxv + 363 pp.

Giraldi lived in the late 15th and early 16th century and here gives an overview of what to him were ‘modern poets’ — people who were active in his own day and one or at most two generations earlier. The book is written as dialogues between Giraldi and several other poets and scholars; in the first dialogue, Giraldi gives an overview of contemporary Italian poets, and in the second dialogue, the other interlocutors present the poets of several other countries — Greece, Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Germany (which is conceived very broadly; the section on German poets includes several Dutchmen, a Swiss, and a few others who happened to be active in Germany). In fact about half of the second dialogue again deals with yet more Italian poets, so that about 3/4 of the entire work is about Italian poets. I guess this is reasonable enough, as it's what Giraldi must have been the most familiar with.

The characters in his dialogue were based on real people, but I suppose that the conversation itself is Giraldi's invention. Admittedly, he doesn't make much use of the possibilities offered by the dialogue as a form — it's more like a sequence of long monologues than a conversation; each character holds forth a mini-lecture while the others listen without saying anything much. On the few occasions when the flow of conversation begins to veer off topic, Giraldi brings it sharply back onto the main subject of modern poets, which unfortunately prevents the whole thing from feeling like a pleasant and natural chat. Still, these occasional small bits of conversation do liven up the text a little bit, so having it structured as a dialogue wasn't an entirely bad idea.

This book was a much better read than I thought it would be; I was afraid that I would find it boring, but it was in fact a pleasant and easy read, although one that is best taken in moderate doses. Giraldi's approach seems to me very different than what one would expect in a modern-day book about the literature of a particular period. Nowadays you'd expect a book like that to include a moderately-sized set of major poets and discuss their work in some detail; on the other hand, Giraldi includes a very large number of poets in his book (I didn't try to count them but there appears to be more than 300 of them), but says very little about each of them, typically just a short paragraph. Sometimes he mentions titles of individual works of the poets, but more often he just gives a vague description of what genre they worked in and what were the overall qualities (or defects) of their work. He pretty much never discusses any individual work in detail. In fact I had the impression that he says more about the biographical facts of the poets' lives than about their work.

This idea of covering a large number of poets, and often organizing them simply by the region or town where they were active, was nice — a normal modern-day treatment that focuses on a few major poets would give you the impression that literature consists of a handful of isolated mountains of towering genius; but the impression you get from Giraldi is instead one of literature as a connected, varied landscape of rolling hills, with a slightly higher mountain here or there, and not a few marshes and bogs as well. I rather liked this picture, and I suspect it's closer to reality: poets don't work in isolation, they have contacts with each other, read and influence one another's work (and geographical proximity is a nontrivial factor in such things, probably even more so in Giraldi's day than now), and so on.

I couldn't help being impressed by the immense amount of work and reading that must have gone into Geraldi's book; he had to actually read the work of most of the poets he talks about (on a few rare occasions when he couldn't get ahold of some poet's writings, he says so and then refrains from commenting on that poet's work).

Another thing that made this book interesting for me was that almost all the poets he talks about were hitherto unknown to me. They may have seemed notable in Giraldi's time, but now 500 years later hardly any of them are familiar to the general public. If I had to think about Italian Renaissance poets, my first idea would be Dante and Petrarch, although I know that Dante is considered medieval and in any case both of these are much too early to fall within the scope of Giraldi's book. Next I would think of the epic poets — Ariosto, Tasso, and perhaps Pulci and Boiardo; of these, Tasso is too late for this book (which does however mention his less well-known father Bernardo Tasso; 2.142 and p. 337), and while he does briefly mention the others (Ariosto in 1.158; Pulci and Boiardo in 2.139), the problem is that he is mostly interested in neo-Latin poets rather than in those who wrote in Italian or other living languages. Anyway, that's more or less where my knowledge would end, so nearly all the Italian poets he mentions were new to me. Well, actually, I did recognize a few of them as I had read their work in earlier volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library: Gregorio Correr and his tragedy Procne (1.157), Vida and his Christiad (1.110–2), Beccadelli (“Panormita”) and his Hermaphrodite (1.56–8), Sannazaro (Giraldi mentions his Piscatory Eclogues and Virgin Birth, 1.33–4), Pietro Bembo (1.41–2; though most of what I read of him so far was prose rather than poetry), Pontano (1.37–8), Maffeo Vegio (1.54–5). There are also some whose work I haven't read yet but noticed their books in the ITRL series, e.g. Fracastoro and his epic poem Syphilis (1.175).

For other countries, it's even worse; I could hardly name any poets that worked in the period covered by Giraldo, so pretty much everything he mentions was new to me. I was curious what he'd say about English poetry, but even there it was clear that most of their famous early poets fall outside this period: the Elizabethans were a bit too late, and Chaucer was quite a bit too early. Skelton and Wyatt would be good candidates. Well, as it turns out, he talks about William Lily (2.53–4; I had never heard of him before), Thomas More (2.56; his Utopia is a rare example of a few words being said about an individual work, 2.58); he briefly lists, though not as poets, “Colet, Grocyn, Lupset, Richard Pace, the bishop of Rochester, and others” (2.57). Once again the thing is that he's interested in neo-Latin rather than vernacular literature. He ends the English section of the book by mentioning (2.59) that “[t]here were also some poets writing in their own native English language”, namely Chaucer (“from earlier times”) and Wyatt.

Among the French poets, the only one whose name sounded vaguely familiar to me was Jean du Bellay (2.64), but as it turns out, I got him confused with his younger cousin Joaquim du Bellay, some of whose poems I read years ago in Edmund Spenser's translation; but Joaquim is too recent to be included in Giraldi's work.

Listed among the German poets is one Matthias Illyricus (2.76), whose conspicuously non-German surname got me curious and sure enough, he was actually a Croatian protestant who lived much of his life in Germany (see p. 293 and also his wikipedia page). There's also one “Andrzei Kryczki from Poland” (2.84); I was surprised to see that the original Latin text refers to his home country as Sarmatia.

Occasionally I wished that the translator's notes were more extensive. I found myself wondering, when reading Giraldi's brief mention of this or that poet, things like: What is known of this particular poet today? How has his reputation held up, how does Giraldi's judgment of his work compare with that of modern-day literary historians? What are some of his principal works (Giraldi often neglects to mention this)? Have any of them been lost? Of those that are stil extant, where and when have they been published? But, of course, if all this had been included in the notes, the translator would effectively end up re-writing Giraldi's book, only at three times the length and with the benefit of modern knowledge; and that's hardly reasonable to expect from a volume like this one. And in fact much of this information is actually included, just not in the notes but as a separate “Biographical Glossary”, which runs to almost a hundred pages (i.e. there's more or less the same amount of text here as in Giraldi's two dialogues put together) and lists all the poets mentioned in Giraldi's work, in alphabetical order, with about one paragraph of information about each of them.

Giraldi on vernacular poetry

Giraldi values poetry in Latin much more highly than that in vernacular languages, and the way he turns up his nose at vernacular poetry is downright grotesque at times. In 1.160, he says: “all the good poets know Latin [. . .] By contrast, barbers and tradesmen [. . .] have turned their hand to poetry and are unworthy of being grouped with Latin poets”.

And in 2.139, after mentioning a few vernacular poets: “I would be going too far if I should wish to include all such poets here. For in that case I would have to include barbers, cobblers, and other tradesmen, many drawn from the very dregs of society. Because of the great numbers of such writers, some men, learned in other respects, have fallen into the heresy of not only wishing to give vernacular literature the same standing as Latin letters but even of wishing to elevate it over Latin literature, and they have even said this in their writings.” The translator adds (n. 69 on p. 248) that Giraldi's views were “by 1551 very much a rearguard position”. But if we ignore Giraldi's snobbishness for a moment, his quote is actually encouraging — a world in which even barbers and cobblers write poetry sounds like a splendid one indeed!

He has an interesting discussion on the origins of vernacular poetry in 2.140: “Some have traced it back to the Sicilians when their island became a kingdom. Most take it back to the people of Tuscany, the region that gave its name to the Tuscan language. Some others ascribe the beginnings to the people of Provence, the part of France that is now given that name.” He is exactly right on all three counts, but I'm surprised that he's so vague about this; either he *really* didn't care about vernacular poetry, or this stuff was in fact relatively little known in his time, being something like 200 or 300 years in the past by then.

“I think that I've spoken at sufficient length about the vernacular poets since even children chant out their songs everywhere in city squares and streets.” (2.151) Wow! Poetry that lives among the people! He says that as if it was a bad thing! Could it be that he was simply jealous because unlike neo-Latin, the vernacular poetry could actually be popular? As in, among the *people* and not just a bunch of pimply nerds in their basements (whatever the 16th-century equivalent of that was :P).


See pp. xxx–xxxi of the translator's introduction for extensive and very pedantic complaints about Giraldi's Latin :)

One Pietro (a.k.a. Pierio) Valeriano “is engaged in a multivolume work on the sacred literature of Egypt” (1.151). According to the wikipedia, he did eventually finish it.

Giraldi is often quite critical of the poets in his volume. Here he is complaining about a poet, Pietro Alcionio, who followed Cicero too closely: “if his prose gave off an odor, it would smell of an oil flask from Arpinum more than anything else” (1.152; Arpinum being Cicero's birth-place). Another author, Bernardino Donato, is even worse: “I have read some of his prose works, which smell of the oil lamp, but he certainly doesn't have the scent of the man from Arpinum” (1.176; the translator's note 72 on p. 241 explains that the oil lamp metaphor is meant to suggest that “the prose is learned, the result of long labor”).

The aforementioned Alcionio “often boasts to all and sundry that he is working on a tragedy on the death of Christ, in which, as he is wont to say, he uses every meter that ever existed.” :))) (1.152)

I was surprised by this observation: “it's easier to compose Greek poetry than Latin” (2.20).

“Etienne Dolet, a Frenchman, wrote many large volumes that I had never any intention of opening.” :))) (2.109) This was funny, but on reading his wikipedia page, his story is actually a sad one: “he was eventually arrested and burned with his books on orders of the theological faculty of the Sorbonne”.

2.156 mentions a poet with an unfortunate surname: Guillaume Bigot. I don't know if it's actually related to the English word bigot, although apparently this word does in fact come from French, according to (“derogatory name applied by the French to the Normans”).

Occasionally I felt that Giraldi's obsession with Latin as opposed to vernacular poetry extended to the point where nearly everyone who wrote in Latin was mentioned in his book, even if only to say that he unfortunately didn't produce any poetry. For example: “There is also Gabriele Falloppio, who turned his interests to medicine.” (2.170) Well, at least I learned whom the Fallopian tubes were named for.

Ariosto had a brother named Gabriele, who was apparently also a poet (2.179).

According to the translator's biographical glossary (p. 269), Elisio Calenzio (mentioned by Giraldi on 2.97) wrote (in 1448) a poem titled “Croacus or De bello ranarum, modeled on the Batrachomyomachia, ascribed to Homer”. I've always been greatly intrigued by the idea of a parody epic like this, so I'm glad to see that another one has been written. I recently saw an interesting-looking modern retelling of the Batrachomyomachia in a bookshop; it was written by one George (not R. R.) Martin and was mistakenly (or cunningly?) shelved among the various Game of Thrones books :))

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home